How to Lead by Example

By Markets Fool.com

We've heard it since kindergarten: the best way to lead is to lead by example.

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Whether it has to do with honesty, work ethic, or customer service, social norms are hugely influential in how we behave and treat others. And, of course, the best way to establish a social norm as a leader is to embody those traits that you want to see in others.

It sounds simple, but how do you actually implement it?

Start with one thing at a time
Building a culture of excellence, communication, and respect isn't going to happen overnight -- especially if you're just starting out on this whole leading by example thing.

Instead of trying to fit in everything but the kitchen sink, sit down and think about the specific norms and traits you most want to see established. Better yet, make a list. It might have three items on it or fifteen, but writing it down will keep it fresh in your mind as you go through the process, and will help you stay focused on these big-ticket, big-picture goals.

From there, choose one thing. Maybe your trait is "Listen to other people's opinions." Put it on Post-it notes, set a reminder on your phone -- whatever it takes, make it a priority to establish this habit over time. Every day, remind yourself to seek out and listen to the opinions of others.

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Once it becomes second nature, say after two weeks, you can go to the next item on the list. It sounds slow perhaps, but do this every day over the course of a year and you've suddenly established 17 killer new habits that you can be proud of.

Don't ask of others that which you won't do yourself
If you want your team or your colleagues to deliver on time, be sure you deliver on time. If you want to see great customer service from others, be sure to give it yourself.

When people see that you are willing and able to do what you say needs to be done, they'll be more likely to do it themselves. This is partially due to social norms (for better or for worse, we tend to mimic others' behaviors), but it's also partly because setting an example demonstrates that the behavior is possible.

That is to say, sometimes it can be hard to believe that you can maintain patience and an upbeat attitude when a customer is being rude. But if you see someone else demonstrating how to do it, suddenly it's no longer an unattainable ideal.

On that note, help others reach their potential
Setting an example is a powerful way of teaching: you show how something gets done by doing it, and people learn by watching.

And just like your kids, your colleagues see pretty much everything. What they might not see is all the intellectual work that goes into your new great habit; for example, maintaining your cool with that abusive customer. Everyone can see that you've done it, but maybe someone needs a bit more help in learning how to do it.

If you suspect that might be the case (someone asking you, "Wow, how did you do that!?" is a great hint that it is), be very free with sharing your techniques. Maybe you counted to ten, or pretended the customer was in their underwear, or channeled the example of a really patient person you know.

Whatever it is, share your techniques with others so that they can also learn how to live up to your example.

Take responsibility
If you want other people to behave in a moral, professional, or innovative manner, they need to be empowered to take responsibility for their actions -- so of course it's imperative that you as well take responsibility for your actions.

That means that when you fail, own up to it. When you get it wrong, admit it.

We all lose our cool at the wrong time or slip into a bad habit that we've been trying to break. These shortcomings don't make us losers, they make us human.

But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be acknowledged and overcome. Taking responsibility for where you've gone wrong will not only humanize you with your colleagues, it will help give them the courage to try to follow your lead and learn from your mistakes. That's because you're showing that mistakes are OK and that they can be overcome.

By showing up every day and taking responsibility for overcoming those mistakes, you're setting the most important example of all: that self-improvement and excellence are valid, important, and achievable goals.

The article How to Lead by Example originally appeared on Fool.com.

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